by Carolyn Mawbey -
with Beth Schlansky
Special to the SGN
SAN FRANCISCO OPERA
DER RING DES NIBELUNGEN
THE RING OF THE NIBELUNG
BY RICHARD WAGNER
WAR MEMORIAL OPERA HOUSE
June 26, 27 & 29 and July 1
'Wow, just wow!' In many ways, that would be the best way to sum up our recent experience of being immersed in Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung. At the end of June my friend Beth and I were fortunate to attend the third and final cycle of San Francisco Opera's production of The Ring. Because it is so long, encompassing over 16 hours divided into four separate operas, people seem to either avoid The Ring or fall for it and become total 'Ring-heads.' In our case, we needed a 'Ring-fix' as we were getting tired of waiting for The Ring to return to Seattle. So we decided to travel to San Francisco to see how their opera company would produce this epic. Fortunately, we got our tickets early, as this mostly sold out summer season run attracted an audience from 49 states and 27 countries. By all accounts San Francisco Opera's Der Ring des Nibelungen exceeded all our expectations and we were totally blown away. What a delight to continue hearing Wagner's music in our heads.
This was the second time that San Francisco Opera took on this production of The Ring, the first being back in 2011. They made certain changes, especially in the very tasteful and thematically appropriate use of lighting and projections to set the atmosphere of each scene of the four individual operas. Like Seattle Opera's 'Green Ring,' which was set in the Pacific Northwest, the projections were local to the geographic area of the Bay Area. But in this case, they moved from depicting the majestic natural beauty of California to displaying the sterility of concrete urban sprawl and the future horror of what could very well be the environmental destruction of the country. They closely followed the setting for each of the four operas. Das Rheingold mostly takes place in a pastoral, natural setting that moves through the California gold rush and finishes in the last scene when the gods, flush with their wealth of the Rheingold, prepare to enter Valhalla, their entry reminiscent of boarding a large ship like the Titanic. Die Walküre moves from the simplicity of Hunding's hut to a more corporate setting where CEO Wotan hides behind a newspaper to escape the nagging of his wife, Fricka. In the second scene of this act the setting moves away from the lushness of nature to a more desert scene. In the third act, the Valkyries, depicted as World War I paratroopers, parachute onto their mountaintop decorated with images of real fallen war heroes. In the start of Siegfried, Mime's camp resembles a homeless trailer encampment, so commonly seen nowadays. Siegfried fights a machine-like dragon in order to gain the ring and the tarnhelm. And when he listens to the forest bird and moves on to shatter Wotan's spear, the scene shifts to more of a desolate desert setting again. Finally, Götterdämmerung mostly takes place in a barren futuristic setting where the three Norns connect a steel cable rather than a rope of fate, and the Rhine Maidens wallow in trash and discarded plastic in a polluted, arid river.
The cast all performed splendidly as singing actors. Some of the singers were familiar to us from Seattle Opera's various productions like Greer Grimsley as Wotan, Jamie Barton as Fricka, Second Norn and Waltraute, and Andrea Silvestrelli as both Fasolt and Hagen. We were also enthralled by Iréne Theorin as Brünnhilde, Daniel Brenna as Siegfried, Karita Mattila as Sieglinde, Brandon Jovanovich as both Siegmund and Froh, Falk Struckmann as Alberich, Raymond Aceto as both Hunding and Fafner, David Cangelosi as Mime, Brian Mulligan as both Gunther and Donner, Melissa Citro as both Gutrune and Helmwige, and Ronnita Miller as Erda. Donald Runnicles, beloved Music Director of SFO from 1992-2009, returned as the Conductor. Francesca Zambello, recipient of the San Francisco Opera Medal in 2015, was the Director, along with Laurie Feldman and Denni Sayers as Associate Directors/Choreographer. Obviously, a production of this size requires many other talented individuals, which for the sake of brevity, I have chosen not to name.
In addition, the chorus and orchestra were both marvelous. And it should also be mentioned that in the final curtain call, we were pleasantly surprised that the chorus, orchestra and stagehands stood together on the stage to take a well-deserved bow. Afterwards, Matthew Shilvock, General Director of San Francisco Opera presented the San Francisco Opera Medal, the company's highest honor, to General Director Emeritus David Gockley. After being honored, Gockley said, 'I dedicate this medal to the people who are on stage with me today, who have given their lives to create beauty and drama in a way that is really indescribable.' We were struck by the reception that he received, both by the company as well as by the audience as a whole. In fact, the company's warmth was further reflected when the entire cast applauded the audience to express their gratitude for our presence!
Besides attending these four splendid operas, Beth also enjoyed attending a two-hour symposium about The Ring, and we both loved the backstage tour of the War Memorial Opera House, where we got to see the stage, some of the performers' dressing rooms, rehearsal rooms, costumes and wigs. In addition, we learned a little about the history of this beautiful building. Opened in 1932, it is one of the last Beaux-Arts structures built in the United States. Besides being the home for the Opera and the San Francisco Ballet, the building also served as a meeting place when the United Nations was being formed. The main lobby is spectacular and the auditorium with its starburst-shaped chandelier is absolutely stunning. We both sat up in the third balcony, which supposedly has the best acoustics in the house. Like so many opera houses, English titles are projected above the stage during the performances. But unlike any other house that we have been in, San Francisco Opera also utilizes what they call 'opera vision' up in the top balcony. This is comprised of two movie screens where close-ups of the stage are projected, making it unnecessary to rely on opera glasses to get a clear view of the performers during the show. We felt that this was an excellent bonus and that it added to our viewing enjoyment. As a whole, Beth and I also felt that the staff was extremely welcoming and accommodating. Their overall warmth made us feel both welcomed and appreciated.
In conclusion, because both of us have loved Seattle Opera's production of what is fondly termed the 'Green Ring,' we were a little apprehensive that we might not like this version as well. But our concerns were unwarranted, as Francesca Zambello's production of The Ring was not only fabulous but very timely. It was a very feminist Ring, for at the end when the old order was coming to an end, it was the women who appeared as the cycle begins anew, and a young girl, dressed in white, comes out to plant an ash tree sapling. Especially in these difficult political times, her presence gave us a glimmer of hope for the future. Having seen San Francisco Opera's former productions of Die Meistersinger and The Makropulos Case, this was not my first experience here. But after having seen their version of The Ring of the Nibelung, both Beth and I are already talking of returning to San Francisco to see another one of their operas.
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